Spectacular rise of a braveheart soldier amid most turbulent times in modern history.
He was not a ruler of any state, yet wielded much stronger influence than any of the rulers of his time, in his own state as well as other states. He created history during his lifetime and posthumously too. A perfect example of what a determined individual could attain in shaping the turn of events through his actions and perceptions.
Jhala Zalim Singh of Kota created his own niche in the history of our country. He was witness to the transition of three reigning powers of India - the Mughals, the Marathas, and the Britishers, during the confluence of eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. His conduct through the transition period brought him eulogy, for the most part, added by a pinch of abhorrence at the fag end.
Born in 1739, shortly after the demise of his father, in an era dominated by anarchical conditions in the Indian subcontinent, he was adopted by his uncle Himmat Singh, who was the Commander of Kota forces, in his teen years. He was just past 18 years when this uncle died. Zalim Singh inherited his uncle’s jagir of Nanta and the post of Fauzdar of Kota, in 1758.
Three years hence arose the occasion that brought fame to this young Commander of the Kota forces. Madho Singh, son of legendary Sawai Jai Singh, sent his force against Kota. The battle was fought at Bhatwara for three days. On the third day, Zalim Singh and his men displayed such valor while charging the rival force, that Jaipur forces fled the field. They were chased and relieved of their animals and property - seventeen elephants, 1800 horses, 73 cannon pieces and the state flag of Jaipur.
The valour and gallantry at Bhatwara opened the doors for the upward journey of Zalim Singh in times to come. His fame as a warrior spread far and wide. He was assigned additional administrative responsibilities by Maharao Shatrushal. After his demise in 1764, his brother Guman Singh became Maharao and Zalim Singh was made Musahib-i-Ala or the prime minister. Gradually, he acquired more power and established himself as the de-facto ruler of Kota. Later on, differences developed between the two and Zalim Singh was expelled from the state.
Zalim Singh moved to Mewar, where Maharana Ari Singh extended a warm welcome to him, his capabilities already being known. Mewar then was in the thick of internal and external problems. After the death in 1751 of Maharana Jagat Singh, who accepted Maratha alliance, there were three young rulers on the throne in twenty years span. The inexperience of rulers encouraged faction among the nobles to grab influence. Ari Singh bestowed a jagir to him and married a girl of cousin to him.
Scindia and Holkar both constantly asked for money from the Maharana, whose coffers were empty, while his nobles were asking for the vacation of the throne. So, when Madhaorao Scindia threatened Mewar, instigated by a rival faction, Zalim Singh garnered some support for the Maharana and decided to face the enemy at Kshipra, to protect the subject from Maratha plunder. Scindia forces overpowered that of Mewar, after initial losses, and a wounded Zalim Singh was taken as prisoner. His friend in Scindia camp, Ambaji Ingle somehow arranged his release after paying a hefty sum.
Meanwhile, in Kota, after the departure of its able administrator Zalim Singh, affairs turned unmanageable, and it’s ruler Guman Singh was constrained to call back the Jhala and restore his position. Shortly thereafter, in 1771, Guman Singh expired, leaving the custody of his ten-year-old son, Umed Singh, to Zalim Singh.
The Jhala was now the de-facto ruler of Kota, the position he had not relinquished at any stage though. But it was no bed of roses. In fact, Kota was the worst place to administer during his time. The rise of Maratha power had engulfed this state into subordination, a state of constant misery. The Peshwa had assigned it to Scindia and Holkar, each vying with another to exploit the maximum. But for Zalim Singh’s tacts, shrewdness, patience, statesmanship, agility and foresight, the state would long ago been abandoned by the inhabitants. Such was the extent of plunder, devastation and atrocities brought about by the Marathas and their allies, the Pindaris, about whom more will follow, along with how Zalim Singh coped with the situation and steered his state into the safety net of EIC.
The etymology of the word Pindari is not known. Some suggest the term emanated from Pinda, an intoxicating liquor these people often consumed. Others relate it to Marathi term Pendha Hare, meaning one who takes a bundle of straw, indicating the function they initially performed, that of collecting forage for horses of armies.
The Pindaris developed as a class of freebooters during the reign of Aurangzeb, when the Mughal power was waning, while the emperor was engaged in the Deccan. The Maratha method of guerrilla warfare refined by Santaji Ghorpade, Dhanaji Jadhav and associates proved effective against the northern armies of Mughals. Encouraged by the methodology, many landless and resourceless youngsters were lured into engaging in the method of making a quick buck and disappearing. All it required was a sound body and a trained pony. In combat, the losing demoralized side was easy prey to chase, without engaging in an actual fight. Initially, their targets may have been the soldiers of troupes, but their absence around at all times limited the chances of booty for the practitioners of this art. To expand the scope, targets were shifted to the general public.
The Marathas made extensive use of these freebooters as an auxiliary band, to aid them in recovering equipage and riches of the rival forces, without paying them regular wages as to their soldiers in troupes. They patronized, protected and encouraged them to operate outside their own territories. The pindaris were let loose to loot in the targeted territories, the objective could be anything - cash, jewelry, clothes, cattle, grass, grain, wood, utensils or any other thing. Additionally, to intimidate the victims, they would invariably resort to rapine, killing, and arson, putting on fire objects that could not be carried.
With the passage of time and expanding opportunity, several groups developed to indulge in organized plunder. They mostly operated in central India but roamed in all directions. They traveled in large groups long distances very swiftly, often through irregular routes. When confronted with resistance, they broke into smaller groups and dispersed into different directions, to reunite at a predecided rendezvous. These notorious groups operated under different leaders, who grew to prominence, were synonyms of terror and tyranny and acquired huge strength. They held rallies during the festival of Dashehara, attended by thousands of their likes. They also held bazars to dispose off their booties.
Some of the prominent Pindari commanders contemporary of Zalim Singh were Chitu, Ghazi-udin, Gardi Khan, Shahbaz Khan, Barun, Imam Baksh, Qadar Baksh, Wasil Muhammad, Dost Muhammad, Amir Khan, Karim Khan, Gul Mohammad, Hiru. The hordes attached to Scindia were called Sindhiashahi Pindaris, while those aligned to Holkar were known as Holkarshahis.
Of these, Chitu was the most dreaded. He was a Jat boy from near Delhi, whom Dobble Khan purchased as a slave and adopted as a son. Karim Khan was the wealthiest and perhaps most powerful. Amir Khan and Karim Khan operated in Rajputana more often.
The geographical location of Kota state rendered it vulnerable to the dual menace of Maratha and Pindari depredations in Zalim Singh’s time. Vicinity to unfriendly and expansionist Scindia and Holkar estates was a disadvantage, especially when its own rulers were weak or imbecile. Existence of Mukundara pass in Kota state, that provided the north-Deccan link, may have been a remunerative possession during peacetime, but proved the contrary during 18/19 century, as the pass formed entry point for southern invaders. The fertile lands of Kota were owner’s pride, but neighbor’s envy.
When Zalim Singh took the command of Kota forces, and later its administration, the state was already under the obligation of arrears to Maratha chiefs committed earlier. Frequent demand for the money left state coffers empty. The main source of income, agriculture, was seriously impaired due to operations of Pindaris, who took away forage, grain and cattle of the cultivators. Peasantry felt insecure and incapable of paying taxes. Zalim Singh provided state aid to farmers to purchase cattle, seed, and other inputs. Local moneylenders were instructed to provide loans to farmers. He arranged to store grains in forts that were well guarded.
Initially, Zalim Singh posted forces to counter and prevent Pindari actions. But this arrangement proved inadequate and cost heavily to the exchequer. He then trained local youth to resist and minimize losses. At the end of the eighteenth century, the frequency and scale of Pindari operations increased greatly. The Jhala then adopted the policy of appeasement and offered Pindaris to settle peacefully in its land. He offered many concessions in lieu of their giving up plundering in the state. Eligible men were recruited in state forces too. He developed friendships with Pindari leaders and offered protection to their families. This arrangement resulted in peace and prosperity in the state, at a time anarchy prevailed all around. Both Amir Khan and Karim Khan remained grateful to him.
He deferred the hefty payment to Maratha leaders through his diplomacy and also arranged for waving off some dues. He married his daughter to the ruler of Bundi. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, when Maratha power was dwindling and English one building up, he sided with the latter. His cooperation and aid to English officers earned their goodwill for him. Though unwillingly, he supported the East India Company in their campaign against Pindaris. This held him in high esteem and enabled him to get inserted in the treaty with the Company and Kota state, the clause that granted his family premiership in perpetuity.